Feb. 26, 2013
Meet the Press
Trying to Explain the Church to Reporters
Monsignor Irwin with CBS reporter Tony Aiello.
The first thing Tony Aiello from CBS in New York did was show me his press privileges. He was officially approved to cover the Conclave. We met for about 20 minutes on a side street outside the covered passage that runs from the Vatican to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Popes used it to “escape” by foot from the Vatican. Now it is a tourist spot, if you make reservations. His questions were mostly straightforward and did not have an edge. That is not always the case. And at the end he graciously asked me whether I had anything to add. Gracious indeed.
With all that is said about the media pro and con, I judge it important to respond to press inquiries. I think that it is a privilege for us to speak about the church honestly and positively. Press privileges in reverse.
When Pope John Paul II died, I wound up doing several television and radio spots. In fact, on the (Sunday) evening after the Pope died I was to be interviewed on CNN in Washington. Beforehand I had to go to the make-up room. (When you start to go bald, they apply make-up from the crown of your head.) Who was sitting next to me but then Father David O’Connell, President of CUA? I was going on Nancy Grace’s show. He was going on Wolf Blitzer’s show. After our stints, we shared a meal at a Union Station bistro.
|A bird’s-eye view of the press risers in St. Peter’s Square.|
I have learned a great deal from press folks. I have also learned that sometimes I decide I can’t answer their questions directly. Right now in Rome the attention is turning from Benedict XVI to who will succeed him. I prefer not to name names … at least yet. So I use the phrase the distinguished professor of Church history at CUA, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, would often use, “I am a better historian than a prophet.”
Then I add things that I think might be on the minds of the Cardinal electors. How to dialogue with Islam and other religions? How to follow through on Benedict’s zero tolerance for clergy who have abused minors? What about administering the Vatican? The latter sounds simple, but there is, in fact, no one Vatican. The Church’s central administration comprises several offices and departments. That means the new Pope needs to judge wisely about who will assist him in administering and directing all these offices.
Sometimes journalists lump together “hot-button” issues like abortion, gay marriage, celibacy for clergy, Communion for divorced and remarried people, etc. When that happens I try to ask, in effect, “who is framing this debate?” In other words, I want to suggest that there are distinctions to be made among Church positions and teachings. We need to admit that the Church has evolved and changed on some issues, like slavery. And at other times we have stood firm in our positions. But that often requires a longer explanation than reporters are ready for. Sometimes sound bites will not work.
I am then known to offer thoughts about Benedict’s legacy on social justice issues like the economy and environment. Lesser known, but certainly (equally) hot-button issues today. These do not usually “fit” with what reporters want to talk about. But they are equally important topics on which the Church has a lot to say.
|A statue of St. Catherine of Siena looks over risers for the media.|
In walking through St. Peter’s Square these days you see a hastily erected, temporary, three-tiered scaffold-like structure, where videographers and reporters can do their reporting. At the end of the street leading to St. Peter’s, the Via della Conciliazione, there is a similar structure. To its right are several sound trucks. On its left side is a statue of St. Catherine of Siena.
In the late 1300s, she was responsible for influencing Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy from France to Rome. She was also called by Pope Urban VI to Rome to assist him at the papal court. This was all part of the very troubling Great Western Schism. I find it ironic that her statue is in front of the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pope’s refuge from the Vatican. Every time I pass her statue I have prayed for the Pope. I pray these days that she will intercede that there will be no schism as we transition from one Pope to another.
I will try to explain that the next time I “meet the press.”